As one of Utah’s oldest non-Native American settlements and the meeting place of the post-Civil War era Transcontinental Railroad, Ogden has a history of being one of Utah’s most diverse cities, and one of its richest sources of Black History.
“The first African-Americans to arrive in Utah were fur trappers in the early 19th century. The second influx consisted of both freedmen who were converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and slaves belonging to white converts.”
That’s from Wikipedia. Make of it what you will.
Some of the first Black Utahns certainly spent some time in the state’s oldest trading post…Fort Buenaventura…which eventually became Ogden.
Within two decades of the establishment of Fort Buenaventura and its purchase by Mormon settlers, the Transcontinental Railroad was nearing completion at Promontory Summit. Crews consisting primarily of Chinese immigrants, worked the line eastward from California on the Central Pacific, while crews consisting primarily of Civil War veterans, Irish immigrants and recently freed Black slaves worked westward on the Union Pacific line. (Two beautiful, and historically significant murals depicting the construction of both rail lines, connecting east and west, occupy the highest interior points of Ogden’s Union Station today).
Railroad barons, politicians, bankers, and religious leaders negotiated the final meeting point at Promontory Summit…53 miles northwest of present-day Ogden.
After golden spikes were driven and photos of dignitaries snapped, the railroad companies/banks/religions/laborers had to decide on an actual junction point. Anything westward on the Central Pacific line was salt flats and brutal terrain for hundreds of miles. The last “Hell on Wheels” camp to the east on the Union Pacific line was present-day Corrine. Close, but not ideal.
Ultimately, it was agreed that Ogden, just to the south, with access to more abundant resources, would be the “Junction City”…a nickname that Ogden carries to this day.
In those days, Mormon leaders felt that the full day of travel to Ogden from Salt Lake City provided their Saints a safe distance from the worldly transcontinental travelers and rough and rowdy ways of rail workers and their “camp followers” that included prostitutes and gamblers chasing a quick buck…but still close enough to provide the Saints with economic benefit.
Several Black, Chinese, and Irish rail workers suddenly found themselves out of a job while holding their final chunk of pay in Ogden. It instantly became one of Utah’s most diverse cities. In 1869, you were here because you had money, or you were here because you didn’t.
The lawlessness of ever-moving rail camps remained alive and well in Ogden for several decades, with brothels, opium dens, abundant bars, and gambling along 25th Street.
It was said that you could get anything for “two bits.” Google it. 25. A quarter. 25th Street. Entertainment. Whiskey. A bed. A prostitute. Opium. Anything…two bits.
Despite having worked alongside one another during the railroad’s construction, the racial sentiments of the day divided the primary street outside the junction into two sides.
The north (sunny) side of the street was for white people, while Chinese and African-Americans stuck to the south (shady) side. Either way, you could get what you wanted for a quarter on either side of 25th Street…or “Two-Bit Street” as it’s still called. If you were the wrong color, you just had to cross the street in front of the specific business you intended to patronize. Just don’t walk down the wrong side of the street.
Looking at today’s 25th Street, Roosters Brewing Company was a Chinese laundry for many years. White people crossed from north to south at 253 25th Street to drop off unmentionables on the “wrong side of the street.” Today, it’s where you sip a craft beer under a pride flag. But let’s not let Ogden get ahead of itself.
The most legendary, and game-changing place on 25th Street was the Porters & Waiters Club, located at 127 25th Street. The South Side.
Founded in 1912 by Billy Weakly and Frank Turner, it was originally a boarding house for Black railroad porters and waiters to gather together socially and sleep between their shifts on either the Central Pacific or Union Pacific routes…for two bits.
By World War II, the club could house over 100 men at the cost of $0.50 a night. Four bits…what with wartime inflation, and whatnot, guests could play pool, pinball, and sometimes even gamble. They could also get beer and sandwiches during their stay.
It was said the club became so famous that a letter from anywhere in the world could be easily delivered to anyone with the simple address, “Porters & Waiters, Ogden.”
In 1945, a young saxophone player named Joe McQueen found himself in Ogden. Born in Ponder, Texas and raised in Ardmore, Oklahoma, after that, the history starts to get a bit fuzzy. Some say he was part of a touring band whose leader had recently lost the entirety of the band’s funds in Las Vegas, and found himself broke and stuck. Others say he came for a two-week gig and loved the town so much he decided to stay. Either way, he stayed with his young bride and played and stayed in Ogden for the next couple of years…and decades.
In 1947, a woman named Anna Belle joined the management team of the Porters & Waiters Club when she married Billy Weakley. Shortly thereafter, Joe McQueen convinced Billy and Anna Belle Weakley to turn the basement of their building into a jazz club. Joe said he was allowed to run his club as long as he took care of setting up the tables and chairs, and taking them down.
After proving himself, he said that he was eventually given a key to access the club at any hour.
Joe’s passion for music…his skill at his craft…the heart in his art became legendary. It traveled not just the main lines of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, but all of its subsidiaries and spurs…and nine rail lines converged in Ogden.
Trains laid over in Ogden at all hours. A passenger might have up to 18 hours to wait for their connection headed in any one of 9 directions.
At any hour, world-class touring musicians would roll into Ogden with a scrap of paper in their pocket from a fellow musician that read, “Ogden. Joe McQueen” followed by a five-digit phone number.
They’d call at any hour, ragged and tired. And Joe would answer, mumble a few words and tell his wife, Thelma, that he’d be back.
Who was calling?
Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Paul Gonsalves, Lester Young, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Ray Charles. Joe would unlock the club and jam with them until just before the whistle blew on the train that carried them to the next gig.
Beyond those documented sessions, it’s unclear whether Joe was around when the Porters & Waiters Club hosted Fats Domino, B.B King, and Marvin Gaye. Joe may have been on the road. Only Thelma knows.
By 1951, the club desegregated due to the number of white Weber State students wanting to cross the street from north to south to hear not just the best music in town, but in the nation. It didn’t take long before Porters & Waiters Club was the single hottest spot in town…kids were crossing the street wherever they wanted.
By the mid-50s, other nearby clubs and bars began to suffer financially and knew that they needed a bit of that Joe McQueen magic. They offered better pay, better hours, better anything…but Joe refused, insisting that he wouldn’t play anywhere that his friends couldn’t come hear him. Unless African-Americans were allowed, Joe wouldn’t play.
The passage of time and the power of local lore would have you believe that Joe’s principled stance and a few soulful notes from his saxophone immediately shattered racial divides in Ogden and ushered in complete harmony. But that is the stuff of fairy tales and Hollywood scripts. It took time and continued struggle from Ogden’s Black community, but virtually every authoritative historical account of Ogden’s black history mentions the tremendous contributions of Joe McQueen and Anna Belle Weakley.
It’s why multiple murals of Anna Belle Weakly and Joe McQueen exist in this town…it’s why the Governor of Utah established April 18th as “Joe McQueen Day” back in 2002…it’s why the Utah State Legislature recognized his 100th birthday in 2019, before he died, shortly after his last gig later that year…it’s why Ogden reveres them not just during Black History Month, but every day.